In a previous blog post we considered the different restrictions in place for the construction sector in the Republic of Ireland (Ireland) and Northern Ireland (NI). This post considers the situations in Scotland and Wales and, given the collaborative nature of the construction sector, suggests the need for a coordinated approach across the UK and Ireland.
To understand the different approaches across the UK and Ireland, it is useful to frame the restrictions as falling somewhere on a spectrum of stringency. Ireland and NI are at either end of the spectrum: Ireland introduced a top down direction, which immediately halted work on non-essential sites, whereas NI has taken an advisory approach without actually forbidding work on sites from continuing*. Scotland and Wales have both implemented discretionary restrictions, using guidance rather than directives, but the guidance in Scotland is stricter than in Wales.
Like most countries, Scotland now has a list of essential businesses that may continue operating while observing social distancing protocols, and the Scottish Government has published guidance for the construction sector to help businesses determine what constitutes ‘essential’ work that may continue. While the document states that ‘no non-essential work should continue at this time’ similarly to Northern Ireland, the use of guidance as opposed to a direction from Government has led to issues with interpretation. This is because to introduce an outright ban a publication must be held out, in clear terms, as being a direction. However, the guidance is a clear order, written in alignment with Public Health Scotland, and is a de facto ban.
The Scotland guidance goes further than the position adopted by Westminster, which has not sought to prohibit non-essential construction works from continuing. Instead, in England, under the fourth version of the Site Operating Procedures, guidance provides that works can continue where workers adhere to social distancing rules.
On 21st May, the First Minister for Scotland Nicola Sturgeon announced a 4-phase plan to take Scotland out of the COVID-19 crisis. Phase one begins on 28th May, at which point construction activity will be allowed to resume by implementing steps 1 and 2 of a 6-step restart plan the sector has developed with the Scottish Government. Step 1 of the construction plan allows for covid-19 pre-start site preparation, and phase 2 permits a soft start to site works where physical distancing can be maintained.
Wales, like England, has not prohibited sites from opening, and instead has placed the responsibility on businesses to make the final call on a site by site basis. The Wales guidance encourages those in the workplace to assess the most appropriate measures given their individual circumstances. This may involve closing sites altogether, or it may involve continuing work while social distancing. Under the guidance, it is down to business rather than government to make the final decision.
As the guidance states:
‘Although physical distancing may be made easier by allowing some staff to work from home, the reasonable measures required in these instances will need to be taken in the workplace.’
A co-ordinated approach
Britain is now in a similar situation to Ireland and NI in that the three administrations – England, Wales, and Scotland – have each adopted different approaches to COVID-19 restrictions in the construction sector. Taken individually each set of measures may be sensible, but having different regimes operating across interdependent jurisdictions, with differing timeframes, will cause further uncertainty for the construction sector which, given supply chain inter-dependencies and the movement of goods and services across the UK and Ireland, is itself a multi-lateral enterprise.
While each administration in Ireland and the UK is different and is best placed to make decisions as to what is most suitable for its jurisdiction, planning for the construction sector under COVID-19 should be spatial, reflecting pre-existing relationships rather than administrative boundaries. Making decisions for the construction sector at an appropriate geographic scale, which recognises the international nature of its work, will make it easier for the sector make a return to full capacity as the restrictions are eased.
The CIOB has been engaging with policy makers across the UK and Ireland to encourage a more spatial approach to policy under COVID-19 that recognises that fluid nature of the construction industry. We will continue to monitor regulations as they evolve and provide guidance to our members.
*Construction sites began operating again on a phased basis in Ireland on 18th May, while stage 1 of NI’s 5 stage plan will encourage those unable to work from home to return to work on a phased basis, although the NI plan does not commit to any dates.